10 October 2017

The funeral and missing body
of Thomas Johnson Westropp

The Westropp reredos in the South Transept in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Last week [5 October 2017], after retelling the stories of how the bodies of the Earl of Mayo and JJ Murphy were brought back to Ireland for burial, I came across a similar story about Thomas Johnson Westropp in Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

Richard Southwell Bourke (1822-72), the 6th Earl of Mayo, a former Governor-General of Mayo, became known as the ‘Pickled Earl’ due to the circumstances surrounding his state funeral. A similar funeral story involves Jeremiah James Murphy (1795-1851), who died in Pisa. He was part of a prosperous and adventurous merchant family in Cork involved in the Murphy distillery in Cork.

I told the story of both Victorian funerals last year in ‘Bringing the bodies home: JJ Murphy and the ‘Pickled Earl’,’ which was published as Chapter 40 in Death and the Irish: a miscellany, edited by Salvador Ryan (Dublin: Wordwell, 2016), pp 151-154.

But the funeral of Thomas Johnson Westropp and the whereabouts of his body tell a similar Victorian tale of mystery.

Thomas Johnson Westropp was the son of Thomas Westropp of Ross House, O’Briensbridge, Co Clare, and his wife Anne (née Rose). The father, Thomas Westropp, was the fifth son of Ralph Westropp of Clonmoney, Co Clare, and Attyflin, near Patrickswell, Co Limerick, and was High Sheriff of Limerick (1807-1810). His wife, Anne Rose, was a daughter of John Rose and was the widow of John Keating before she married the elder Thomas Westropp.

Thomas Johnson Westropp, their only son, was born in 1818. When Thomas died in Madeira in 1839 at the age of 20, his mother directed that his body should be brought back to England to be buried in Cheltenham, where she was living.

Many years later, as a memorial to Thomas Johnson Westropp, the south transept in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, was restored in 1862 and a reredos on the east wall and a stained-glass window were erected in memory of Thomas. The south transept is also known as the Chapel of Saint James and Saint Mary Magdalene.

The Westropp reredos depicts three scenes: the Agony in the Garden, the Burial of Christ, and the Resurrection. The Westropp Window was designed by William Slater, and made at the stained glass works of Clayton and Bell in London. The five lights or panels of the window depict Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon.

The story is told that when Anne Westropp died, the chest supposed to contain her son’s body was opened once again for her funeral. But it was empty and it contained no human remains.

The story of the funerals and the missing body was first told by his kinsman and namesake, the historian Thomas Johnson Westropp, who also points to a number of mistakes on the memorial in the cathedral. He notes that his name was Thomas Johnson Westropp, and not Johnstone as given on the brass, and that he actually died in 1839, and not in 1830, in Madeira.

The later Thomas Johnson Westropp (1860-1922) was a noted antiquarian, folklorist and archaeologist.

This Thomas Johnson Westropp was born at Attyflin Park, Patrickswell, Co Limerick, and studied engineering at TCD. While surveying the field monuments of Co Clare, he became fascinated by the variety and descriptiveness of the folktales he heard being recited by local people. He published these tales in a series of articles in Folk-Lore: Transactions of the Folk-Lore Society, in 1910-1913. His writings provided the foundation for the work of the Irish Folklore Commission.

In 1916, he was the President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (RSAI). A collection of his photographs depicting Dublin that year in the wake of the 1916 Rising forms part of the new Digital Repository of Ireland.

His 40 photographs, taken on 17 and 18 May 1916, show the damage and destruction left by the Rising. Westropp had the photographs developed and bound, with multiple copies submitted to Dublin institutions, including the Royal Irish Academy and TCD.

The Westropp window in the South Transept in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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